Orthodox Spirituality in Democratic Pluralities

In: Politics, Society and Culture in Orthodox Theology in a Global Age
Kateřina Kočandrle Bauer
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Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. […] To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage.1

This statement from Jürgen Habermas suggests that we already see the roots of democratic values and ideas in Judaism and Christianity and that to nourish these values and ideas is to return to these roots. In addition to these positive values that we appreciate in contemporary democratic societies, however, we must also consider their illnesses, both sociological and psychological. With the help of two thinkers, the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (1925–2017) and his book Liquid Modernity, and the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han (born in Seoul in 1959) and mainly his book The Burnout Society,2 I will unmask some of the illnesses of postmodern democratic life, such as societal liquidity and the lack of boundaries, over-transparency, individualization and hyperactivity. I will then look for possible antidotes in the roots of Orthodox spirituality and explore how these antidotes might transform these destructive elements in democratic societies and restore a sense of integrity, wholeness and harmony.

I will work with different discourses. I will speak about the illnesses in postmodern democratic pluralistic societies using sociological and psycho-political discourse, but I will respond to them using the language of theology and spirituality. I will draw on those theological models within Orthodox spirituality that could help fill out Bauman’s analysis and especially Han’s. At the same time, I will take into consideration my own context of the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, especially the Czech context.3

Liquid and Positive Human Societies

The Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia represents a small autocephalic church in the centre of Europe, where Orthodoxy is connected to neither land nor nation. Its members are mostly Russian, Ukrainian, Greek and Romanian believers and Czech converts to Orthodoxy so it is multicultural. It exists in a democratic pluralistic country. But our society also bears many of the illnesses of postmodern times that find their way into the church.

I have found an accurate description of these destructive elements in the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman and the German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Bauman describes the transition from modernity to postmodernity as the transition from a solid society to a more liquid one. He notes that while modernity was characterized by the need for order, the need to categorize and rationalize the world in order to make it controllable, predictable, and understandable, late modernity (or postmodernity) is characterized by the need for constant change. In Bauman’s view, the term liquid modernity describes the condition of constant mobility and change in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society. The only constant thing is change, and this can be seen everywhere, even in approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, it has become impossible to construct a durable identity – that is, one that coheres over time and space.

Han’s analysis of late modernity is similar to Bauman’s. For Han, the difference between modernity and postmodernity lies in the transition from a disciplinary society, governed by regulations and restrictions, to a society of pure positivity, where negativity is entirely absent. The society of positivity is characterized by a limitless “can.” It is a “can-do” society. As Han writes: “Prohibitions, commandments, and the law are replaced by projects, initiatives and motivation.”4 People are free from any external power, repression and domination, and they are called to personal motivation and responsibility. Thus, the “subject of achievement” gives itself the freedom to maximize achievements. Overwork and the drive for performance escalate into self-exploitation: “The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited,”5 as Han says.

How can we deal with this liquidity and positivity in democratic postmodern countries? Are there any spiritual antidotes that would lead us back to conditions that support the values of democracy that, as Habermas suggests, are found at the very roots of Christianity?

Back to Being a Pilgrim

From this brief introduction, we can see that the first issue we need to deal with is the concept of human identity. Both authors describe human identity in the postmodern world in terms of instability on all levels of reality. They use similar metaphors for this unstable human identity: Bauman uses the metaphor of the “nomad,” and Han that of the “tourist.” Bauman’s nomads are continually changing jobs, values, spouses, and political and secular identities – and, I would add, church identities. This liquid society, without restrictions and regulations, places more responsibility on individuals, who are often unable to carry such a burden. The result is an emphasis on “shifting” rather than on “staying,” and people find it more and more difficult to make permanent commitments. Han’s description of the unstable identity of the tourist lies in the person’s inability to embark on a real journey. The tourist does not understand the meaning of “journey.” In Han’s view, such tourism is characterized by the absence of both a guiding narrative and a final purpose. The “touristic journey” “is not a semantically rich way.”6

With increased globalization and religious pluralism, spiritual seekers are not fixed to any particular place or community and are free to taste and experience whatever spirituality takes their fancy. I am not sure we can avoid this phenomenon, but the question remains: How can we integrate these features of postmodern identity into the Christian context and replace them with a metaphor that has deeper spiritual meaning? I offer here the older metaphor of “pilgrim.” Seeing our lives as a spiritual pilgrimage has a long history within Christianity; it is not a new concept. The metaphor is found in the Bible and in the writings of the fathers, such as Gregory of Nyssa.7 The Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic is made up mostly of people who came from different countries and Czech believers who came from other Christian denominations. Pilgrimage does not necessarily require a change of geography. It is a journey with God, with other people, and with the whole of creation. The spiritual journey is full of meanings, both contained within our memory and accompanied by the eschatological hope of the fulness of God’s presence in God’s kingdom.

The pilgrim’s perception of space is different from that of the nomad or the tourist. Bauman’s nomad is not fixed to a particular place but is always moving. The pilgrim’s perception of space is of a different quality. As Heidegger says, space is not distinguished by its various places but by one’s sense of being.8 Han’s tourist has no sense of being, lives only in the present, consumes places, and sees only what is completely transparent.9

The pilgrim’s sense of being on a journey emerges from the cosmological understanding of being part of the space of creation. The Orthodox theological emphasis on the material and spiritual worlds emanating from a single source, as expressed in articles and books by Elizabeth Theokritoff10, helps pilgrims to understand that the spiritual journey unites them with God. They are not consuming the space of creation they dwell in but nourishing it. The natural world around us is not to be consumed. It is to be used sacramentally. Only then will we see its real meaning – that it points to God, as Alexander Schmemann says.11

This cosmological notion of creation as the space of the incarnate Word of God enables the pilgrim, in contrast to the tourist, to see what is hidden – to see places that are not transparent. What become especially visible are the walls and boundaries that form part of the structure of space. Structuring the world by building walls and demarcating boundaries and borders is all very well until it brings an ontological hierarchy of the inside and the outside.12 The pilgrim is able to notice and appreciate the meaning of windows and doors as places of welcome and of letting go; as points of contact for those both inside and outside. What is more, if the churches are literally or metaphorically closed, if the walls are too high to enable people to get in or out, pilgrims always find other ways, other journeys on which to encounter God. To nourish the space around us also means to nourish those tiny corners and forgotten paths where pilgrims encounter God, people and the whole of creation.

Back to an Iconic Understanding of Reality

Democratic pluralistic societies appreciate transparency, especially political transparency, whereby citizens have access to information about their government. But transparency is not limited to the political sphere. It is present everywhere in society. Han sees this emphasis (or overemphasis) on transparency as destructive: the omnipresent social media force us into hyper-communication and tire us out. For Han, this kind of transparency in which people are present all the time can be seen all the time, and communicate constantly is a sign of a society that lacks any sense of negativity. And a society that lacks negativity is just a new kind of totalitarianism. Such a society excludes all negativity; it is based on total positivity. As transparent language loses any plurality of meaning and loses all ambivalence, we lose the hermeneutic of depth and mystery. Han goes further and applies the hermeneutics of total positivity to our understanding of ourselves and of each other, which manifests itself in the permanent pressure to exhibit and externalize ourselves. Han calls this phenomenon hypervisibility.

How can we overcome this transparency, this over-visibility, and this negative view of mystery? Are there any aspects of Orthodox spiritualty that can help negate these destructive processes? I believe one such remedy can be found in the very heart of Orthodox spirituality, and that is the spirituality of icons. Father Sergei Bulgakov finds the answer in the roots of the historical debates regarding the iconoclastic controversies of the 8th century. In his treatise “Ikona i ikonopochitanie” (Icon and Icon Worship),13 Bulgakov defines an icon as an antinomy: God cannot be depicted; God is revealed. An icon is the invisible made visible and the depiction of the undepictable.14 Without this antinomy, an icon is an idol.

In the context of the fine arts, Bulgakov sees a tendency towards idolization in pure naturalism and photography. Each of these art forms seeks to overcome the abyss between the ideal image of a thing and its image, which is neither possible nor desirable. For Bulgakov, art is not about the real but the ideal; it is about the human ability to uncover the ideal meaning and to see truly. To be blind is to be unable to see the invisible. To see in a contemplative way iconizes the world: to contemplate, uncover and co-create the ideal meaning of the world. This is what Han says is missing in our computerized and digital society in which people become blind in order to see more. Han adds that sometimes we need to close our eyes to hear music and see beauty.

This same antinomy is valid for the broader meaning of icon in theological anthropology. People made in God’s image and likeness are not fully transparent. There is a difference between people as God’s image and people as masks. Han describes this difference as that between a real person and a dressmaker’s dummy. The latter is dead, naked, and can be decorated with whatever clothes one likes. But a living person who bears God’s image is also the bearer of a mystery; she is not transparent. As Olivier Clément says in a typically poetic way, the human body both reveals and covers a person.15 To kill God’s image in others means to destroy the invisible and make them slaves – people without faces. Similarly, Han and Bauman suggest that regarding a person in such a way objectifies them as “the other.” To see and nourish God’s image in the other means not reducing the mystery.

Back to Contemplation and Co-Creativity with God

Han describes contemporary society as a society of achievement. Everyone is affected and slowly becomes a subject of achievement, and this includes the Orthodox Church and the theological milieu. In Han’s view, what drives this lust for achievement, what drives the “I can” society, is the lack of regulation. Without the prohibitions and regulations that provide boundaries, we end up in hysterical hyperactivity and become driven people for whom work and production is all. In the digital era, this hyperactivity has transformed the homo sapiens into a homo digitalis, a person who writes with atrophied hands.16

Han sees the situation as a crisis of the spirit, whose medium is not hyperactivity but silence. Within the Orthodox tradition, the spiritual healing of hyperactivity and production can be seen in the complementarity of apophatic and cataphatic ways of knowing God, as described clearly by Vladimir Lossky in his Théologie dogmatique (Dogmatic Theology).17 Apophasis guards God’s infinite otherness by applying the divine “no” to all attempts to assess God’s perfection by the use of our own categories.18 We find this way of knowing God in the mystical tradition and contemplative praxis, as found in the life and work of Father Sophrony of Essex. Father Sophrony’s description of theosis as encountering God in the Uncreated Light is drawn from his practice of the Lord’s Prayer, which helps the person praying overcome rational categories and unite with God. One necessary stage on the spiritual path towards encountering God in the Uncreated Light is meeting with darkness.19 Cleansing one’s senses, one’s way of life, descending into one’s own hell, is a pre-condition for being resurrected with Christ. Whereas the society of positivity and transparency is about attaining maximum profit or maximum information, the apophatic way is about attaining a clean heart. Mystical theology and contemplative praxis can bring healing to the people of a society characterized by hyper-communication and hyperactivity, people who live in a world without spatial or temporal breaks.20

The apophatic way is complemented by the cataphatic way. The cataphatic way emerges through the narratives and symbols in which revelation has taken place and that are accessible to people because they are based on a common experience.21 Here we can use another example from the Orthodox monastic tradition, such as the life and work of Mother Maria Skobtsova. She saw the creative act as a feature of human freedom, and, when she was in exile in Paris during the Second World War, she was active in social engagement with Russian emigrants and Jews. Her theological argument for the importance of creative work and its spiritual meaning stems from the event of the Incarnation. The Incarnation represents an invitation to embrace rather than reject the material world. Chalcedonian doctrine teaches us not to deny the materiality of the world or of nature, or the human potential to create. Made in God’s image, human beings embody the connection between the natural and transcendent worlds and so must display a creative spirit similar to God’s. God’s creativity is mirrored in the creative processes on the earth and in the creative cooperation between people and God.22 Without this cooperation, without two sides – the human and the divine – creative processes would not exist.23 Mother Maria shows us the difference between production and creation. The human ability to create is fundamental to human being and is part of being made in the image of God. But to create also means to rely on God as a partner. Han describes the difference between production and creative acts in terms of two forms of tiredness: production and hyperactivity bring “solitary and divisive tiredness,” which prevent the subject from seeing what is outside him- or herself; on the other hand, creative acts bring a tiredness that is “reconciliatory” and opens the “I” to the world.24

Han suggests that contemplation makes people human. He is right that this way can save us from all kinds of hyperactivity, both social and political. But the two ways, the apophatic and the cataphatic, the via contemplativa and the via activa (if the latter is understood as cocreation rather than production), interpenetrate each other, critique and enrich each other.

Back to Community Based on Spiritual Love

Our opening quotation from Habermas suggests that democratic values are the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. How do we define this Christian ethic of love? Han and Bauman are equally sceptical of the human ability to form and sustain relationships based on love in contemporary society. Both see the digital media as a principal cause of the fragmentation of a society now composed purely of individuals. Bauman sees a world where people have stopped communicating face to face, have stopped knocking on each other’s doors.25 Han suggests that other causes of fragmentation in society include the absence of negativity and the absence of otherness. Transparency makes real relationships impossible: what keeps a real relationship alive is precisely the impossibility of complete interpersonal transparency. It is the space and distance between people that makes relationships possible. Han writes: “[D]istance and shame refuse to be integrated into the accelerated circulation of capital, information and communications.”26 The other from whom otherness is taken is no longer a person and thus cannot be truly loved. Without the presence of another, communication slowly degenerates into an information exchange and relationships are replaced by connections.

This is where Orthodox theology and spirituality can help us, especially the Orthodox theology of personhood, which stems from their theology of the Trinity in which the categories of love, freedom and otherness are necessary elements. Relationships of love and freedom are what define a person. We find one of the ideas behind this equation in the ontology of a person as described by Metropolitan John Zizioulas.27 Zizioulas is seeking to create an ecclesiology that expresses the church as a way of being. But he is also aware that the mystery of the church is deeply bound to human being and to the being of the world and of God.

In describing the mystery of the life of the Trinity, Zizoulas shows that, unlike the Latin fathers, the Greek fathers see the person (hypostasis) of the Father, rather than some inert substance, as the ontological principle and cause of the life of God as Trinity. The being of God is therefore not ontological necessity but personal freedom. The Father freely “begets the Son and brings forth the Spirit.” Outside of the Trinity there is no other being of God. A person’s true identity can be found only in relationships. There is no true being without communion. Being comes from the person who loves freely and who affirms his or her own being by means of communion with other persons. This concept is not just theoretical but existential. The communion of divine persons is essential for human relationships. Without proper relationships with others, a human can be an individual but not a person.

God’s ontological freedom lies in his personal existence, in the authentic relationships of the persons of the Trinity. Freedom is possible only by way of love as the primordial predicate. In the Trinity, love and freedom are identical. People created in God’s image always have the hope of being authentic persons. We are not talking about the freedom of negation, of denying one’s own existence, but the freedom of love. In Zizioulas’s view, even freedom understood merely as the ability to choose is false as this is just another kind of necessity. This view resonates with Han’s criticism of the contemporary notion of freedom. Han suggests that the imperative “be free” inflicts violence on the subjects and leads to tiredness and depression: “You can exercise even greater constraint than You should.” Independence does not bring freedom and emancipation: the dialectic of freedom lies in the fact that it always generates new limitations.28 On the contrary, Zizioulas’s ontology says that the real ontology of personhood is based on freedom not “from” the other but “for” the other. It thus becomes identical with love. “Being as communion” also means accepting the otherness of the other. Without the otherness of the other, we would have no communion. As Zizioulas says: “We can love only if we are persons, that is, if we allow the other to be truly other, and yet to be in communion with us.”29


Bauman’s sociological analysis and Han’s psycho-political analysis of contemporary society show us trends in the development of democratic pluralistic societies. I have chosen to use their critique as it resonates with my own context of the small Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia Orthodox Church and with my personal experience. I also believe that in Orthodox spirituality we see the potential to reverse these trends and to create the conditions necessary for a truly integrated life in democratic countries.

Returning to the metaphor of the spiritual pilgrim can anchor the nomads and tourists in democratic pluralistic countries into a broader body of creation and help them experience God on their journey. Being anchored in creation seen as God’s word will encourage a tolerance towards space for others and remove the ontological dualism of a hierarchical inside and outside. Returning to an iconic understanding of reality will lead to the fullness of life where our relationship to God, others and the whole of creation is not objectified and where mystery is still present as the condition for the fullness of life and mutual respect.

Returning to the contemplative life and to creative activity will mean applying both the apophatic and the cataphatic ways of knowing God to spiritual praxis and thereby helping people in a society of hyperactivity and mere production (including theological production) to truly encounter themselves, others and God. It will mean that, even in the tiredness that comes after creative work, it will be possible to see the world around us. Returning to a spiritual form of love will help us in democratic pluralities to understand the freedom that transcends cultural and national freedom but at the same time nourish them. By freedom, we mean freedom not of choice but of love. A theological understanding of a person provides an alternative notion of anthropology, in which people are seen not as mere objects or separate individuals but as unique persons who bear God’s image and are able both to love and be loved. Relationships based on freely given love transcend all individualism and division.


Jürgen Habermas, “A Conversation about God and the World,” in Time of Transitions, ed. and trans. Ciaran Cronin and Max Pensky (Cambridge MA: Polity Press, 2006), 150–1.


See Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).


For more information about the Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, see Kateřina Bauerová and Tim Noble, “The Ways from Diaspora to Local Churches,” in The Ways of Orthodox Theology in the West, Ivana Noble, Kateřina Bauerová, Tim Noble, Parush Parushev (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2015), 183–239.


Han, The Burnout Society, 9.


Han, The Burnout Society, 11.


Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015), 35.


See, e.g., Tim Noble, “Pilgrims Progressing: Ignatius of Loyola and John Bunyan,” Baptistic Theologies 3, no. 2 (2011), 64–78, here especially 64.


See Martin Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking,” in Basic Writings: From Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), ed. D. Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 356.


See Han, Transparency Society, 31.


See, for example, Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009).


Alexander Schmemann, The World as Sacrament (London: Darton, Longmann and Todd, 1965), 16.


For more, see Zygmunt Bauman, 44 Letters from the Liquid Modern World (Cambridge MA: Polity Press, 2010), 168.


See Sergius Bulgakov, “Ikona i ikonopochitanie: dogmaticheskij ocherk,” in Pervoobraz i obraz: Sochinenija v dvuh tomah (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1999), 241–309.


For this and the comments in the following paragraph, see Bulgakov, “Ikona i ikonopochitanie,” 155, 161, 162.


See Olivier Clément, On Human Being: A Spiritual Anthropology (London: New City, 2000), 30–3.


Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 32.


Vladimir Lossky, Théologie dogmatique, ed. Olivier Clément and Michel Stavrou (Paris: Cerf, 2012).


Lossky, Théologie dogmatique, 62.


See Archimandrite Sophrony, We Shall See Him As He Is (Essex: Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 2004), 99.


Han, The Burnout Society, 22.


Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1978), 32–3.


For more on the issue of creativity and freedom in the Russian diaspora, see Kateřina Bauerová, “Mystery of Divine-Human Cooperation in Freedom and Creativity: An Example of Liturgical Life from the Russian Diaspora in France,” in Approaching the Threshold of Mystery: Liturgical Worlds and Theological Spaces, ed. Joris Geldhof, Daniel Minch and Trevor Maine (Regensburg: Verlag Friedrich Pustet, 2015), 155–6.


Mother Maria Skobtsova, “Istoki tvorchestva,” in Vospominanija, staťi, ocherki II (Paris: YMCA, 1992), 136–54, here 140.


Han, The Burnout Society, 31.


Bauman, 44 Letters, 160.


Han, The Transparency Society, 4.


John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004). The comments that follow here are taken from this work, pp. 15, 18, 43, 44.


Han, The Burnout Society, 38.


John D. Zizioulas, Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church (London: T&T Clark, 2010), 10.

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